Defiance (2009): Edward Zwick’s WWII Tale, Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell

Based on a true, largely untold story, “Defiance,” a WWII tale of family honor, vengeance, and salvation, is a typical Edward Zwick work: A politically charged film about a significant issue, which combines action and melodrama in equal measure but suffers from lack of complexity, vision, and unexciting technical execution.

It’s too bad, for Zwick, along with Oliver Stone, is one of the few American directors who’s unafraid to tackle explicitly political and controversial films, be they about racism in an African-American regiment during the Civil War (“Glory”), politics and commerce in contemporary Africa (“Blood Diamond”), a chronicle of an eccentric American historical figure (“The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise), authority and deviance in the military (“Courage Under Fire”), and so on.

Zwick’s heart (and ideology) are in the right place, but like Ron Howard, he is a proficient and skillful helmer, who nonetheless makes impersonal films that lack personal stamp or distinct signature that would elevate his work to the level of meaningful art and his directing style to the level of auteurism.

World-premiering at the 2008 AFI L.A. Film Fest as closing night, “Defiance” will be released by Paramount Vantage in several cities on December 31, before going into wide distribution on January 16, 2009.

Despite its several shortcomings, “Defiance” may benefit from its stellar cast, headed by Daniel (Bond, James Bond) Craig, whose latest 007 adventure, “Quantum of Solace,” opens next week in the U.S. and is already breaking box-office records in Europe. It remains to be seen to what extent the mass public, which has totally embraced the revamped Bond series, would go and see Craig in a period film in which he plays a Jewish warrior.

Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell star as the Bielski brothers, a trio of men who turn a primitive struggle of survival into something broader and more consequential in meaning, a way to avenge the deaths of their loved family members by saving thousands of other Jews.

The tale is set in the midst of WWII, in 1941, when Hitler was massacring the Jews of Eastern Europe in various concentration camps. Managing to escape death, the trio takes refuge in the surrounding woods, a site well familiar to them from their distant, happier childhood. Unfazed, the trio begins an engaged but largely desperate battle against the Nazis. At first, their battle is one of survival, namely simply to stay alive, which is almost unbearable due to devastatingly brutal winter.

Gradually, however, as rumors of their idealistic daring spread out, the Bielskis begin to attract and recruit other men and women, of various ages, all-willing to risk everything for the sake of tasting a fleeting moment of defiance and freedom.

At one point, Tuvia exclaims what later becomes the film’s motif: “We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals. We have all chosen this–to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can. Each day of freedom is a victory, and if we die trying to live, at least we die like human beings.” As scripted by Edward Zwick and Clay Frohman, from Nechama Tec’s non-fiction book of the same title, the Bielskis represent types, if not stereotypes. Craig plays Tuvia (yes, the same name as the protag of “Fiddler on the Roof”), a reluctant leader whose decisions are challenged by his brother Zus (Live Schreiber), who worries that Tuvia’s plans might lead to disaster and doom.

The two brothers propose different tactics and strategies of how to handle the Nazis’ atrocities, but since the scenario doesn’t offer much background about their pasts, we are led to believe that the animosity between them must have had roots prior to the War as a result of other issues.

Jamie Bell plays the youngest brother, Asael, a guy reluctantly caught in the midst of his brothers’ fierce rivalry, and often placed under pressure to take sides.

Zwick and his co-writer capture vividly the notion of Jewish working-class farmers, hailing from the remote countryside of Belarus, whose idealistic call to arms puts to test the limits of their courage, of their brotherhood, and of their will to defy the evil surrounding them, all along recognizing the overwhelming odds against their mission. It is noteworthy, that on at least one level, the brothers succeed: They create a peculiar but intimate community, in which faith is kept alive, even when the very essence of humanity seems to be rapidly losing ground.

As director, Zwick likes to work with stars (Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Meg Ryan, Tom Cruise), and in “Defiance,” he coaxes good performances from his entire ensemble.

Conducting his own act of personal defiance in refusing to be narrowly typecast in the iconic role of James Bond, Daniel Craig renders a strong, muscular performance as the eldest brother, whose commitment to the goal justifies the means at his disposal, even if it causes tension and antagonism with his own flesh-and-blood kin. It’s too bad that his character’s past as a smuggler and petty criminal is glossed over for it would have made his character’s politicization more complex and more interesting.

Equally commendable are Craig’s brothers: Liev Schreiber, one of the least mannered actors around, known in the saga as the “wild one,” and Jamie Bell, who finally emerges out of his adolescent phase with a virile turn of his own, when circumstances call for manly maturity.

The Oscar-nominated cinematographer Eduardo Serra, who has also lensed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond”), gives the film, which was mostly shot in Lithuania, a vibrant, authentic imagery, and the largely violin music by James Newton Howard creates the right mood.

The goal of revisiting WWII history in general and the Holocaust in particular is admirable, and the effort to contest prevalent myths about Jewish struggle, that is, the brave resistance of those few who refused to go without a fight, is equally honorable.

What’s badly missing is a singular perspective that will turn the largely untold story into a thematically and technically shapelier film, and one that’s more dramatically compelling. In the hands of a craftsman (but not artist) like Zwick, however, the idiosyncratic saga gradually becomes a generic WWII about heroic survival.


Tuvia Bielski – Daniel Craig Zus Bielski – Liev Schreiber Asael Bielski – Jamie Bell Lilka Ticktin – Alexa Davalos Shimon Haretz – Allan Corduner Isaac Malbin – Mark Feuerstein Ben Zion Gulkowitz – Tomas Arana Tamara Skidelsky – Jodhi May Riva Reich – Kate Fahy Yitzhak Shulman – Iddo Goldberg Bella – Iben Hjejle Peretz Shorshaty – Martin Hancock Viktor Panchenko – Ravil Isyanov Konstanty “Koscik” Kozlowski – Jacek Koman Aron Bielski – George Mackay Lazar – Jonjo O’Neill Arkady Lubczanski – Sam Spruell Chaya Dziencielsky – Mia Wasikowska Jewish Elder – Mark Margolis German SS Scout – Markus von Lingen Gramov – Rolandas Boravskis


A Paramount release of a Paramount Vantage presentation of a Grosvenor Park/Bedford Falls production. Produced by Edward Zwick, Pieter Jan Brugge. Executive producer, Marshall Herskovitz. Co-producers: Clayton Frohman, Roland Tec. Directed by Edward Zwick. Screenplay, Clayton Frohman, Zwick, based on the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec. Camera: Eduardo Serra. Editor: Steven Rosenblum. Music: James Newton Howard; production designer, Dan Weil; supervising art director, Daran Fulham; set decorator, Veronique Melery; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; sound, Petur Hliddal; sound designer/supervisor, Lon Bender; special effects coordinator, Neil Corbould; visual effects supervisor, William Mesa; stunt coordinator, Steve Griffin; associate producers, Troy Putney, Alisa S. Katz; assistant director, Darin Rivetti; second unit director, Dan Lerner; second unit camera, Berto. Casting: Gail Steven, Victoria Thomas.

MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 135 Minutes